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Fort Delaware and the Civil War Prison

Nikola Petrovski
Missy Lee - CC BY-SA 3.0

The true beginnings of this fort were in 1794. During this period, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a military engineer from France, did a survey seeking the perfect defense site. After a short while, he stumbled upon an island that he dubbed Pip Ash. And the perfect place it was for it had a strategic position and was previously untouched by humans, except that is by Dr Henry Gale who used this island as his private hunting lands.

Pea Patch Island and the fort/ Author: Michael Swanda, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Pea Patch Island and the fort/ Author: Michael Swanda, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

And so the military offered $30,000 for Pea Patch Island, but being a wealthy man from New Jersey, Dr. Gale kindly snubbed the sum. Having no other choice, the military asked the state of Delaware for help. As a state, they pretty much owned the all of the Delaware River and by extension all land therein. And so, in 1813, the island was ceded to the Government of the United States–which meant Dr Henry Gale was left with no island and no money.

Circular Stairway/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC BY-SA 3.0

Circular Stairway/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC BY-SA 3.0

Gale contested, and the issue of ownership rumbled on for several years. It was finally resolved in 1820 when John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, contacted Attorney General William Wirt. Gen. Wirt came to the conclusion that the State of Delaware was true owner, stating that New Jersey had no jurisdiction to have given Gale ownership of this land.

The fort during the American Civil War/ Author: D. Auld – Sketched By D. Auld; Delaware Public Archives

The fort during the American Civil War/ Author: D. Auld – Sketched By D. Auld; Delaware Public Archives

Once the War of 1812 began, the island needed to be fortified. The whole operation of defense was under the guidance of Captain Samuel Babcock, who was already focused on a similar structure in Philadelphia. This is the period when the first seawalls were erected, together with the dykes, though no written evidence exists that confirms if any work was done concerning the fort itself.

Reproduction of the POW barracks/ Author: combatphoto44 – CC BY 2.0

Reproduction of the POW barracks/ Author: combatphoto44 – CC BY 2.0

The official date for constructing this fort is December 1817, under the guidance of Joseph Gardner Swift, a Chief Engineer by trade. It was an attack on Fort Mifflin during the Revolutionary War that prompted the need for building another fort to slow down future invasions. And so work began with the insertion of 12,000 piles deep into the mud, for the land upon which this fort was being built was marshy.

Laura M. Lee and Brendan Mackie describe the construction in their book Fort Delaware: “Grillage timbers were laid in tiers over the piles. Shops and quarters were built, stair towers and cisterns were installed, and iron rails were laid for gun rooms. By 1858, the new Fort Delaware was ready for artillery and its future as a military post.”

Part of the Courtyard/ Author: Mary Mark Ockerbloom – CC BY-SA 4.0

Part of the Courtyard/ Author: Mary Mark Ockerbloom – CC BY-SA 4.0

It was during the Civil War that this fort was converted to a prison. A prisoner of war camp was erected on this land that housed the arrested Confederates, both political convicts and soldiers. The inmates at first were locked in the casemates, in empty powder stores, and inside two claustrophobic rooms, the bricks of which still bear the names of its “guests.”

The reconstructed Prisoner Barracks/ Author: Brahmslover – CC BY-SA 4.0

The reconstructed Prisoner Barracks/ Author: Brahmslover – CC BY-SA 4.0

Some of the prisoners, however, were treated better than the others and were offered better conditions, such as good food and a daily supply of bread, and even a maid to cook and clean for them. A total of 52 inmates escaped this jail.

The kitchen in Fort Delaware/ Author: Mary Mark Ockerbloom – CC BY-SA 4.0

The kitchen in Fort Delaware/ Author: Mary Mark Ockerbloom – CC BY-SA 4.0

The restored mess hall/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC BY-SA 3.0

The restored mess hall/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC BY-SA 3.0

After the Civil War, in 1878, a terrible storm swept the island causing tremendous harm to the fort and the structures around it. Everything that stood on the south side got either heavily damaged or completely destroyed. Some of the structures were repaired only to be once more devastated by a tornado in 1885.

Fort Delaware cannons/ Author: WorldIslandInfo.com – CC BY 2.0

Fort Delaware cannons/ Author: WorldIslandInfo.com – CC BY 2.0

Since its construction, the fort has been through a number of wars. Today this place is a favorite destination of tourists, who reach the island by the regular ferry service.

The fort today/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC0

The fort today/ Author: Mpdoughboy153 – CC0

The fort itself has, in more recent years, hosted a number of TV shows, such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, and Most Haunted.